What Uber Has to Teach Us About Company Culture

It’s been a challenging few weeks for Uber to say the least. Uber is receiving criticism and close internal and public scrutiny after a former engineer, Susan Fowler, recounted her negative experience working at Uber. To make matters worse, just last week an Uber driver released a dashcam video of a hostile exchange with Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, and a senior exec left the company after it was discovered that he did not disclose a prior sexual harassment claim against him.

In Fowler’s blog post, which has drawn significant attention on traditional and social media, she describes the management team and culture as hostile, divisive, competitive to the point of sabotage, with everyone only concerned with their own success and undermining others to make themselves look better.

Her story includes sexual harassment, threats of retaliation for reporting it, discrimination and a massive exodus of women on her team. She estimates that during her time at Uber her team of 150 engineers went from 25% women to 3%.

Uber HR: Incompetent, deceitful, threatening

While the management team comes off badly, the HR team looks even worse. The HR team is portrayed as disorganized, incompetent, deceitful, and even threatening.Click To Tweet Uber has responded quickly with internal meetings and hiring former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate, but frustrated employees continue to vent across social media channels.

What lessons can organizations learn from Uber? How can you use people science, a focus on people data to identify trends, to ensure your company doesn’t become the next culture exposé?

How cultures are built

People with higher status or influence have a disproportionate impact on culture, as others will look to them as role models and emulate their values and behaviors. Over time, values and behaviors solidify into a core culture and become very difficult to change. The underlying concept of status-seeking, is the driving mechanism. If a culture overly emphases status-seeking behaviors, without prosocial, collaborative, and altruistic behaviors, an unbalanced, highly-aggressive culture emerges, like that described at Uber.

Founders not only launch a company, but they create the culture. That’s what happened at Uber. See “If Uber’s Culture Is to Change, the CEO Must Go.”

The danger of emphasizing individual success

Every organization wants to attract, engage and retain high performers. Uber is known as a performance driven organization with a culture of ‘top talent, high standards.’ Building a culture of high performance is not without risks as unguarded it can become a culture of individual success at any cost. Fowler describes ‘a Game-of-Thrones political war’ with managers deliberately withholding critical information and trying to sabotage the careers of others to get ahead.

Pulse surveys, which are typically used to measure overall engagement, can be used to target specific areas of company culture. To test for indicators of toxic high performance, a pulse survey could include questions that measure trust, respect, integrity, willingness to help and support others, and teamwork. The data from the survey should then be analyzed to identify if there are differences in groups within the organization.

Identifying diversity issues

Fowler’s account represents an extreme case of sexual harassment, discrimination, blatant exclusion, and a significant decline in gender diversity that should be easy for any HR team to identify. People may tolerate such behaviors because rewards such as stock options and vesting schedules can make leaving extremely difficult, especially in startups.

Diversity and inclusion issues are often subtle, and there may not be evidence of numerous grievances or serious increases in attrition. People science can help identify these issues by reviewing key metrics such as performance, promotion, salary, high-performance selection, along with other parameters such as attrition, hiring, and engagement. Including questions regarding inclusion and respect on employee surveys is another great way to monitor and test for these types of issues.

HR must speak truth to power

Armed with the right data, and understanding the science behind culture, can be an organization’s first line of defense against toxic cultures. However, if HR identifies negative culture trends, it will need the support of senior leadership to address the issue.

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Executives need to understand how positive cultures can drive innovation, teamwork and collaboration, which often lead to high performance. They also need to be familiar with the risks associated with toxic culture behaviors, including individuals acting in their own best interest instead of the company’s interest; potential legal issues; siloed information and innovation; and employee turnover to name just a few.

Finally, to address negative behaviors and create a balanced culture, a detailed plan should be put in place to address the specific behaviors unique to the particular organization and ensure alignment between culture and performance management. For example, if talent hoarding is an issue, then leaders need to have metrics on talent sharing as part of their business objectives.

As demonstrated by Uber’s experience over the last few weeks, senior executives are role models, and their values and behaviors are the foundation of an organization’s culture. If toxic, divisive, and predatory behavior is ignored, it will become embedded in the culture as an accepted practice, even if performance is high.